Every March, St Mary’s church in the Leicestershire town of Melton Mowbray becomes a cathedral of pies: it fills with tables bearing more than 800 pastries.
Some recipes are particularly offbeat. While the quirkiest entry in this year’s Speciality Meat category was a cricket pie, one celebrated past winner was Phil Walmsley’s squirrel pie in 2014. Walmsley told me that it has medieval origins, but still sells out at Market Harborough’s twice-monthly farmers’ market. “They’re also a great way to deal with a pest,” he laughs.
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It’s not just the squirrel pie: several hundred years ago, there were many types of pies already a beloved part of British cuisine. Records from the 11th Century show East Anglia paying levies to the Crown with herring pies – a practice that continued for 800 years – with towns required to send an annual tribute of “100 herrings baked in 24 pasties”.
Records of Henry VI’s 1429 coronation speak of a suitably regal pie of ‘Partryche and Pecock’, while the 1465 feast for the new Archbishop of York saw guests scoff 5,500 venison pasties. The great artistic chronicler of English life, William Hogarth, puts a street pie seller centre-stage in his 1750 painting The March to Finchley.
Even in their early days, pies served different purposes for the rich and poor: as show-off delicacies for the former and portable food for the latter. So while wealthy feasts might include pies containing anything from game birds to mussels, the less well-off used simpler pies as a way to have food while doing outdoor work or travelling – the crust both carried and preserved the tasty filling.
Take, for example, the Bedfordshire Clanger: a British classic which cleverly combines main course and dessert, with savoury ingredients like pork at one end and sweet ingredients like pear at the other. The name comes from a local slang word, ‘clang’, which means to eat voraciously. However, cramming two courses into a pie makes a clanger rather unwieldy – and all too easy to drop, inspiring the English phrase ‘dropping a clanger’ for a careless mistake.
Pies have been adding rich flavour to the English language for centuries. Even Shakespeare got in on the act, writing in his 1613 play Henry VIII that “No man’s pie is freed from his ambitious finger”, giving English the phrase ‘a finger in every pie’.
Meanwhile, the description of a drunken state as ‘pie-eyed’ likely takes its cue from someone who, thanks to having over-imbibed, has eyes as wide and blank as the top of a pie. ‘As easy as pie’ – first recorded as ‘like eating pie’ in the horse-racing newspaper Sporting Life in 1886 – springs from pies’ historical role as convenience food.
‘Eating humble pie’, meanwhile, comes from medieval deer hunting, when meat from a successful hunt was shared out on the basis of social status. While the finest cuts of venison went to the rich and powerful, the lower orders made do with the ‘nombles’: a Norman French word for deer offal. Anglicisation saw ‘nombles’ pie become ‘humble’ pie.
As well as changing the English language, pies have become a cultural treasure in their own right.
In 2008, the European Union gave Melton Mowbray’s pork pies ‘protected geographical indication’ (PGI) – the same elite status as Champagne. The Melton Carnegie Museum explains how the pies from this Norman market town developed such fame: pigs in particular had a taste for the whey left over from making the equally-renowned local Stilton cheese, leading to many local farmers keeping – and eating – the animals. This resulted in the chopped pork which was put into the pie, cooked and then eaten cold. These became popular horseback meals for the area’s large fox-hunting fraternity from the 17th Century onwards, as well as for local farm workers.
Another treasure of a tradition can be found in Yorkshire’s Denby Dale, which is the world capital of giant pies. The village baked its first mammoth creation in 1788 to mark George III’s recovery from a bout of madness, though sadly there is no written record of its size or ingredients. Since then, nine ‘megapies’ have been created. The 1815 Victory Pie celebrated the defeat of Napoleon with a pie containing two sheep and 20 fowls, while the Millennium Pie of 2000 was 12m long and weighed 10 tonnes.
Pies have provided a way for the British elite to show off with more than just size. The 16th and 17th Centuries saw the rise of so-called Surprised Pyes, created to impress guests at aristocratic banquets by concealing unexpected things under an additional removable pastry lid added after cooking.
One gigantic 16th-Century royal pie concealed a gaggle of musicians who began playing when the pie was cut, while another trick saw people burst out of a pie to recite poetry. Concealing live birds was also popular – hence the ‘four and twenty blackbirds’ in the nursery rhyme Sing a Song of Sixpence.
The Regional Pie category at the Awards acknowledges how pies are edible markers of not only one’s social status, but of different British regions. This year’s winner was a Norfolk Plough Pudding, made with sausage meat, bacon, sage, onion and brown sugar. It’s traditionally baked in that part of East Anglia for the first Monday after Epiphany, when spring ploughing is meant to begin.
But it was Cornwall’s eye-catching Stargazy Pie that might be the most distinctive. Cooked with sardines gazing up from the crust, this distinctive pie has roots in a 17th-Century tale from the fishing village of Mousehole. The story goes that a fisherman named Tom Bawcock braved December storms to land a huge haul of fish that saved the village from starvation. To celebrate, his catch was baked into a giant celebratory pie – with fish heads left poking out as proof that the fish famine was over. Today, Stargazy Pie is traditionally baked with seven kinds of fish, boiled potatoes, boiled eggs and white sauce. The fish serve a practical purpose, not just a symbolic one: oil from the heads enriches the pastry and moistens the pie.
If that sounds somewhat quirky and fun, you’re not mistaken. And in the 21st Century, that may be one of the best reasons to continue the pie tradition. As Reverend Kevin Ashby puts it after his blessing of the pies, a tradition of the British Pie Awards: “We must have pies. Stress can’t exist in the presence of a pie!”